Becoming a firefighter is no easy task. The competition is fierce and the physical requirements are grueling, especially if you’re a woman.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department has faced criticism in the past for its lack of diversity. Two percent of the county’s firefighters are women, but the department is taking steps to get more women out there saving lives and putting out fires.
In 2015, a Los Angeles Times investigation and the L.A. County auditor found that the department’s hiring process was riddled with nepotism, cronyism and cheating -- some of the people in the department were sharing the exams with people they knew. Chief Daryl Osby disciplined the employees involved and implemented hiring reforms, which included the creation of the Women’s Fire Prep Academy as well as a division focused on outreach, diversity and inclusion.
In order to increase the percentage of women firefighters, the L.A. County Fire Department holds the annual Women's Fire Prep Academy. The program is free and has been offered since 2016. This year, 70 women signed up to be trained to build the physical and technical skills necessary to prepare to join the department’s full-time academy.
"We’re finding women don’t have a lot of experience running a chainsaw or running a ladder or something like that,” said L.A. County Fire Capt. Sara Rathbun, who helps manage the academy. “Women can come and experience some of Fire Department culture, physical activity, skills, tools and atmosphere. It’s something that is very unlike other careers. It’s more like the military than it is like any other job. And that’s often culture shock."
The training includes fitness and endurance tests, a pullup test, and a test to see if they can hold the plank position for up to four minutes. The women also get familiarized with aspects of the job, like working with firehoses, strapping on the breathing tank or raising a 35-foot ladder against a wall.
The prep academy was created to put women in a comfortable environment, where they feel safe asking questions and making mistakes. Men volunteer as trainers and mentors because this is a male-dominated profession and that’s what the workplace will look like.
However, the prep academy is offered exclusively to women because many don’t even consider applying for firefighter jobs unless they feel sure they can get one, according to Capt. Rathbun.
“The fact is that if I’m a man and you’re a woman and we’re both partially qualified for the same job, I’m way more likely to apply for it when I’m only 60 percent qualified and you are likely to wait until you have 100 percent of the qualifications,” said Rathbun.
Prep academy trainer Siene Freeman became a firefighter after doing the program last year. At 45 years old, she’s the oldest woman the county has ever hired as a new firefighter.
“My story started when I was 5 years old going through a tour in kindergarten at a fire station. I got to see the firefighters in the engines and all the equipment. I thought, wow, this is the most amazing thing in the world,” said Freeman.
“And instantly back in 1979 was told it’s not for girls, it’s not for women. Try something else. Look at something else. It’s not for you. And I just remember for years feeling like this is what I want to do. And over the years in high school, I would tell people I want to be a firefighter and they said it’s not for women. And I put it on the back burner.”
Of the 50 women who went through the prep academy last year, Freeman is one of three who’s actually working as a firefighter now. Chief Osby said this is a step in the right direction, but acknowledged that there’s more to do. Currently, women make up 2 percent of the county’s firefighters. That’s an improvement from previous years, but it’s still less than half the national average.
“We need to do a lot better,” said Osby, responding to the statistics. “At the national level, obviously they’re doing better than my department. But we need to do better. And I think that when you look at some departments that are more diverse than mine, it is unfortunately because they were sued.”
While firefighter Freeman said she feels welcome in her new role, she said she feels the extra burden of being a woman.
“Some of the things that we’re up against is constantly having to prove that we can uphold the standard, which I knew what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I’m up for the challenge, but we have to prepare our women to be up for that challenge as well.”
Of the 70 women who started this year’s prep academy, 61 completed the six weeks of training. Some had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts, while others just realized that this wasn’t for them. Osby spoke to the women during the prep academy graduation.
“The hope is that women in the fire service won’t be an anomaly,” he told the candidates. “That there will be girls who see you on our apparatus, in our special units, in our uniforms, saying, 'I want to be like them.' ”
The next chance for any of these candidates to apply to be a firefighter for the county is in the fall, when the department holds its next exam.